You Are God in Drag: Eleven Notes from Before and After Retreat
Are peak experiences real?
The skeptic says no: when you're relaxed, of course your brain thinks all is one. But really that's just a feature of brain chemistry.
In that state now, here on retreat, I can hold the critique. However, the critique cannot hold the state I am in now.
If I were seeing pixies, the critique might be stronger. But I am just seeing a light, a bed, a computer, etc. It's true that my body and mind are relaxed. But that is neither adding to nor subtracting from theological speculation. What it is doing is letting me absorb the magnitude of the truth.
This truth -- that this, just this, where and what and who you are right now, is the One and nothing else -- this underlies Western and Eastern metaphysics. Impermanence is true.
Every time you eat, you are eating the sun. All sources of energy on this planet, stored up in plants, long-dead plants, animals -- all comes from the sun. This is true even of plastic soda bottles. And every atom in every thing you see was once in a star.
In busy, ordinary, "small" mind, these truths are just facts. We can evaluate whether they are artfully expressed or clichés, or whether we think they are mere diversions. We may have other things which we think are more important.
All relaxation does is allow the truth to be felt. The mind is cleared, like a dirty window wiped clean, and the magnitude of what we might ordinarily take for granted inspires tears. Moreover the mind is quieted so much that all that's left is its true nature: God. Awareness, radiating love. I have said this before, but what a miracle, that all we have to do to be beautifully loving creatures is just relax and allow.
You don't have to put anything in.
How do we know anything is true? Certain things are logically provable, but many other kinds of truths are not. Even "hard" truths, not just emotional ones. We know something is true because it fully accords inside our minds. There is a sense of knowing. That sense is present now.
Is this knowing related to how a plant "knows" to grow, so beautifully, intricately?
Hafiz says, you are God in drag.
I know that through my meditation practice, I become more compassionate and open, which makes the world a better place, albeit in a small way. And I become happier.
But that's not enough for reason. I've noticed that because of the way I'm built, or trained, I am almost unable to simply say "even if it's not true, it makes me so happy to believe it." I might be better off if I could do that -- if I could set aside truth and just be happy with a comfortable illusion. But I might be better off with the body of a model and the bank account of a millionaire too -- some things are just not my lot. I want to know that what brings me happiness is true.
Sometimes that need manifests as doubt which closes me off from happiness. But other times, I see it as very valuable, because the same skepticism, the refusal to settle for appearance, has led me to become a mystic in the first place.
I love that, as realized as I have been fortunate to become, I am still early on in a long, always-present path of greater and greater realization of true nature. And it will always be Now along the way.
When I think of publishing these notes, the mind races ahead and gets distracted. What happens? Two things. First, it closes itself off from now and goes into someplace else, into the magazine, or the website -- someplace that isn't right here. Second, the mind becomes filled with aversive or attractive desire. I want the piece to be like this, I want it to be received like that. The writing of this piece becomes performative, and thus a critical part of myself (as in movie critic) is engaged, ruining the flow of experience.
Breathe. Hold the sensation. Notice the feeling of that. Watch it and eventually let it go.
You can't simultaneously pursue enlightenment and interrogate it.
Back from retreat.
It's such a fragile truth -- the simple pantheistic notion that, really, everything is just God. Or, everything is emptiness, if you prefer -- that no thing, including the self, has separate existence. It's very easy to write down, and incredibly fragile. Learn it too quickly, and it's a cliché, or doubt arises, or, worse, it inhibits the actual experience (knowledge in the Hebrew sense) of it. Forget it after you really learn it, and you sink right down into the concerns of the small mind. Today, the knowledge is still present for me -- I don't have to fake it, just cultivate a calmer mind state to allow it to penetrate in. Eventually it may not feel as natural. But today, I can dip my toe into either side, feeling the world as it truly is, or as my mind is conditioned to feel it, suffer with it, dread it, love it, etc. All our minds are so self-centered, so self-certain that there is us and them. Without this will of separation, we could not survive or reproduce. Still it boggles the mind why it had to be so.
And the truth is so easy to forget. So we are told again and again and again: remember, remember, remember. All the Jewish religion does is remember. All the Buddhist path does is remember (in the Jewish sense: i.e., see anew, make real now, remove veils of ignorance).
"Be faithful to me, and I will show you love," God seems to say. What does this mean for me? On retreat I worked with the phrase for a while, but I think I'm only understanding it (or understanding it on a deeper level) now, off retreat. Be faithful to me -- know that I am all there is, that "it's just Me" here. No inside, no outside. It does feel like a kind of faithfulness to keep that consciousness intact, or be reminded often in 'small moments, many times.' However it is faithfulness to a dear Friend, not a principle. Once it becomes a principle... well, all is not lost, but the heart of it is.
And then every contemplative says they can't really talk about what it is they want to talk about. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. The indirect/absurd speech of the Zen koan. The unpronounceable Name. Negative theology. Neti-neti. You can just go across the board. Non-contemplatives may go and say that they know this or that, or perversely, that they don't know anything and therefore they must obey the Bible (or some other text) with literal, intense devotion -- all the while trapped in the notion that there is a self obeying a text. But I don't know of any authentic writer of mysticism who can say with certainty that God/Being is this or that.
A funny thing just happened. I was searching for phrases with which to end the previous paragraph, and the first two were "...can say with certainty that 'I know'" and "...can say with certainty that 'This is It.'" Of course, both of those phrases flow immediately from the mystical experience. But what 'It' is, or what the 'knowing' is (it's not really an 'I know') -- no one can say. People get frustrated with this. Mystical obscurantism, vagueness. But it is not meant to be some sort of game or deliberate mysteriousness. It really cannot be said.
Moreover, if it is said, there must be a predicate noun or adjective attached, e.g. "God is love." That is fine but incorrect, because what about (a) everything else in the universe and (b) that which we suppose is beyond the universe, and thus utterly without linguistic or even conceptual expression. It's fine to say that God is this or that, but it misleads us into thinking that God is not something else.
Or that, when God says "Be faithful to me, and I will show you love," what is meant is that we will receive the love we want, from a partner or a parent or adoring fans who read our work. We will be shown the love in this pencil-holder, in the atoms of the snow, and in the embrace of all of these empty illusions rising and falling within Mind.
Secret teachings are not esoteric; they are experiential.
I've noticed a convergence happening between what I thought was esoteric Buddhist wisdom and what is, in fact, the most commonplace of advice. There is a little unease around that -- as if all I've learned is "be happy and greet each day with a smile." That has always seemed disingenuous, and an inauthentic response to a world in which vast suffering exists. If we greet each day with a smile, are we being honest with parents whose children die, or, more importantly, parents whose children are killed in wars that we might have avoided?
Greeting each day with a smile, or 'seeing the good in everybody' also seemed personally dishonest. I am glad that my consciousness is more complex than that -- that, some days, it greets the world with a smile, and other days the smile quickly turns into something else. That is my reality, I am glad it is my reality, and there is little that annoys me more than being told to paper over my reality with a banal cliché.
Seeing reality clearly, of course, is why I go on meditation retreats to begin with. It is, for me, the opposite of cliché.
And yet, as I was sitting today, a thought came up about how much more I have enjoyed seeing people in these few days since the end of retreat than previously. I see them as manifesting God, in unique ways. Some are joyful, some mean, others cool, aloof, clueless, wise, caring. I love "subway practice," which usually takes the form of choiceless awareness, combined with a dropping of the self on the one hand and an allowing of the mind's curiosity on the other. I love looking at people's clothes, imagining what they are doing, sympathizing with those who are stressed out or who look unhappy, loving when a group of kids come on, with their crazy, unruly energy. (Luckily they're not my kids.) Subway practice depends on dropping my own story -- where I am going, how pissed off I am at what happened an hour ago -- and it doesn't always work. Particularly when I am running late, I am too anxious to quiet down, and so I give up, reading something on my Palm Pilot instead, or playing a game. Maybe with deeper practice, I will be able both to drop harder stories, and to allow those stories to be watched as part of the parade of life/God passing by at this moment.
How different is subway practice from "see the good in everybody"? Seemingly, only one letter different: "good" has an extra 'o.' I don't really mind that I have come full-circle to the advice columnist in Reader's Digest, but it is very curious.
I suppose there are some differences between dharma and Chicken Soup for the Soul. No-self, for example. Then again, maybe no-self is just a more extreme version of "don't think only of yourself."
Another important difference is internal. I actually feel and believe where I am coming from. It's not "oughta compassion" -- it's natural compassion, or interest, or openness. If I had to sit and repeat to myself "be nice, be nice, be nice," I would not be very nice at all. And I am trying to watch the times when I don't want to be nice, and act as skillfully as possible to respect my own feelings while at the same time not being an asshole.
Probably the most important difference between where I'm at and where the supermarket books are at is introspection. You can "not sweat the small stuff" and yet not look too much inside either. Then you may lead a life that may be destructive, or selfish, or not quite fully human.
Does the ordinary, plain, good-people world cause suffering? Yes, but it is subterranean. "Just part of life," they say -- but it isn't.
If all we are doing is relaxing and feeling good about ourselves, this suffering will continue. We constrict into our selfish needs, which we relax about, and go on hurting the weak, the brown, the planet.
But if we are being fully open to what is, we will experience the Ground of all being, which radiates compassion, and so we won't go to war unnecessarily or spray everything with pesticides or warm the planet so the forests die. We won't make an idolatrous god out of convenience. That is the most important difference, then, between really relaxing and opening up into truth, and relaxing like you do at the beach: when you get back from the beach, are you acting to alleviate suffering in the world?
My wind chimes are ringing on a clean winter day, and I've just noticed a few buds coming from a plant that I was sure had died.
All these programs, executing within the mind of God. These hands, clapping in emptiness.
At the school where I teach, a teacher was trying to teach something about a point of Jewish law, and the kids were misbehaving. They are full of energy. So he got a little upset at them. I suppose if you trace it back, the point of Jewish law eventually leads to God. But those kids, with their energy, were God. It was as if people argue about and puzzle over and declare the absence of exactly what they are at the exact moment they are denying it.
I used to carry around a subtle anxiety that meaningful religion will soon disappear from the Earth. Fundamentalisms will survive, and possibly kill us all, and the stupid will likely continue to take refuge in an imagined God. But I worried that the communities in each religious tradition that actively engage with the spiritual and deep-ethical teachings of their tradition seem to grow smaller and smaller in proportion to the hordes at the shopping malls. Now, two changes have occurred in my thinking. First, I have grown to trust the unfolding of God. Even if It evolves in a way that would fill me with great sadness (continued ecocide, continued vulgarization of Western culture), It evolves.
Second, I have begun to think of "God" as a concept that evolves by disappearing. Primitive gods on most continents were very personal, very present, and represented in images. Beginning with monotheism in the West, God began to take on a new, less visible form -- One God, whose human-like image cannot be represented. Philosophy pushed the One even further from image, to an unchanging, formless perfection -- closer to the One Being of Vedanta and Buddhism in the East, which also supplanted a rich pantheon of personal deities. In both East and West, the older forms have survived to this day, albeit transplanted into an unconvincing new cosmology or theology. Within the last five hundred years, even the concept of the One, or the Formless Being, has begun to be eclipsed by something even more removed from concept: the lack of God altogether. And within the last two hundred, the joining of East and West in some Romantic and spiritual circles has spread the doctrine of monism.
If we assume that the One is ultimately unknowable, these later developments are welcome indeed. The gods are idols. Concepts of "God" are idols. Even the "belief in God" is a concept. So the most accurate picture we can have of God is no picture at all, which is precisely what most intelligent people today hold.
The less clear the picture, the further the distance feels. A philosophical Jew who believes in the One has a far less rich emotional-religious life than the pious Jew who prays to the God of Abraham, or the Catholic who addresses the Virgin. This is the critical difference between atheism and monism: that for us monists, God is right here, now, in the fingers typing these words, the plants on my desk, the thoughts being sensed by the mind. God is bathing me in love, if I admit it.
For the atheist or agnostic, such nonsense-words (nonsense because, having not been experienced, they are implausible, and associated with bad thinking) do not bring comfort. And so we are seeing a turn to religious and spiritual practices, or to more self-aware artistic or cultural ones, on the part of the minority of people in the West who do not have an explicit, and authentic, relationship with the Numinous.
Of course, most Westerners are still quite happy with Christianity, thank you. And not everyone who has no God-concept is close to God -- many are serving gods of ego: selfishness, materialism, the dull egoistic kind of hedonism. I am speaking of cultural creatives and people like them -- people who are deeply engaged with the Good, be it aesthetic or intellectual or ethical. These people are rediscovering God -- only without the concept of God and, they suppose, in explicit opposition to it. In fact, their minds are closer to God than most of the religious.
At the same time, I have nothing but respect and awe for the organizers of organized religion. They are trying to teach to everybody what nobody can understand.
I used to think I knew about everything except God. Now I think I know about nothing except God.
What that means: of course, I didn't know about everything. But I felt that I knew something about most things which interested me. Politics, religion, literature, art. I was learning continuously, and synthesizing information, and it gave me delight. Now I have a small shudder of revulsion that passes through me each time I think of being enticed into some subject or other. More importantly, I don't think I know anything anymore. I don't know how to teach, I don't know how people really work, I just don't know anything. Or at least, if I have ideas, I think they are all tentative and idiosyncratic. I want to say nothing.
i have no
interest in polite and clever conversation anymore
i've been rendered a social cripple by god
Image by holisticgeek, courtesy of Creative Commons license.